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Oct / Nov 2015
World of Good

WRITER: Jean-Baptiste Jacquin / the interview people

A seed was sown when a Paris-based tech company created by an entrepreneurial Lebanese data scientist turned down a lucrative US contract because they preferred to build useful technology in an ethical way. Now they’re on a quest to free us from our growing enslavement to the digital masters.

 

Even before our first handshake, it’s clear that Rand Hindi, with his ripped jeans and grey scoop neck t-shirt, oozes coolness. And when it comes to his crazy ambition, the 30-year-old couldn’t be more straightforward. “Our goal is to make technologies disappear in the long run,” says Hindi, who started coding at the age of 10, founded his first startup at 14, and began his PhD when he was 21.

Hindi has an obsessive fear that we’ll become slaves to the billions of connected objects being used across the planet, from the obvious smartphones and computers to watches, cars, clothes, refrigerators and blood pressure monitors.

“We’re going to be hassled by these objects that will constantly be asking for confirmations or sending us information,” he says. “The years to come will be the worst in history in terms of quality of life.”

This young man is neither a doomsayer nor a guru. A mathematics, computing and big data enthusiast, Hindi studied biocomputing at University College London, where he also earned his doctorate, and now lives in Paris, where he has gathered a team specialising in artificial intelligence.

 

 

Snips, the startup that Hindi founded in 2012 – whose motto is ‘We make technology disappear’ – will be launching its first general use product any day now, a free smartphone interface users can download. It’s supposed to make accessing a service on our mobile phones ten times faster.

“It’s going to be a smart gateway to all your apps. We’re working on the sensibility of objects towards the user, what we call context awareness,” he says, before launching into a lecture on the subject. “The device will be able to anticipate certain user actions – for example, by booking a means of transport before an appointment that’s been saved on the device’s calendar.”

In Hindi’s ideal world, technology won’t disappear per se but it will stop being something we constantly need to think about. “When connected objects are smart enough not to be invasive, we can add as many as we want,” he says. He thinks we’re just ten years away from the inflection point between our growing enslavement to technology and the liberation that it will provide.

The young man’s obvious magnetism and lack of complexes are among his assets. With a father working in finance and a mother in the fashion industry, both of whom are Lebanese citizens who left their war-torn country for France, he has often enjoyed a great level of freedom. In high school for example, he took a four-month break before his Baccalauréat graduation exam so he could prepare for it the way he saw fit.

Mathematician Maël Primet didn’t think twice before partnering with Hindi after their first meeting on a December night in 2012. “I was already in my pyjamas when a friend called and urged me to come right away to meet the guy he was having dinner with,” Primet recalls. That guy was Rand Hindi.

Their conversation over a rib steak quickly turned to big data and machine learning. “We had the same way of thinking,” Primet recalls. Not long after that, the then 29-year-old gave up his job at the Ministry for Industry and joined the Snips adventure, becoming the startup’s co-founder and chief technology officer. He brought with him a third member, Michael Fester, who was studying pure mathematics at Cambridge University.

The first success for this scientific, dynamic and friendly team was Tranquilien, a collaboration mobile app that predicts passenger flows in Parisian trains. “Rand is extremely intelligent and his startup was going forward fast, even too fast for us sometimes,” says Cynthia Gutton, head of innovation for France’s national railway company SNCF. “They were always suggesting new projects.”

After this partnership with the state-owned company began, Snips began receiving recognition and the possibility of some major money. Suddenly, it was on the verge of signing a significant contract with the American telecommunications company Sprint for a new app. Success was within reach.

But then, Hindi and his partners decided to change direction completely. “When I wake up I sometimes tell myself that the world we’ll be living in 20 years from now could be a world of destruction, or on the contrary a world of abundance without any limits,” he says. “I’m just trying to bring something to the world.”

More prosaically, Primet explains that: “we haven’t studied for 10 years to end up selling people’s data behind their backs, just so that others can sell ads.” That’s why the company declined the Sprint opportunity.

It takes some nerve to say no to the promise of big money, especially when in their first year together they weren’t able to pay themselves a wage every month. “We want to build useful technology in an ethical way,” Primet says.

Protecting user privacy is among their primary objectives, at a time when big data raises the spectre of Big Brother, either public or private. That’s why Snips has adopted what Hindi calls a “privacy by design” approach.

He can go on and on about the things he hopes to create but he becomes much quieter when asked about his company’s economic model. “We don’t have one yet,” he says. “We first want to try and understand people’s behaviour.”

Yann Lechelle, the oldest member of the Snips team at 44, and a serial entrepreneur himself, explains, “Rand prefers to wait until we have a very successful product before cashing in on it.”

That doesn’t stand in the way of the team exploring new possibilities. “We’re launching a long-term project to predict depression, thanks to data,” Hindi says. Fascinated by what data exploitation could bring to healthcare, he insists, “the goal is not to replace doctors, but to augment them.”

He even made himself the patient once after his studies in London. Having created an algorithm that allows you to find the perfect diet, he decided to put his work to the test. Although he initially wanted to gain between 10 to 15 kilos (that could then be lost), he ended up packing on 35 kilos, which in retrospect he says was thanks to “a mixture of ego and pseudo-scientific breakthrough.” Still, Hindi and his team are now ready to adapt their technology to any market that enables large-scale replication. When that happens, Snips, which of course means small pieces, will become a brilliant misnomer.

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